There are five fire towers in the Catskills, three of which I have visited, but I still have not mustered the courage to get to the top of one. Flights one, two and three of Balsam Lake Mountain fire tower were a piece of cake until a slight breeze blew, which rattled me to the core, then I looked down. Huge mistake; I sank to the floor (which looks like flimsy wood paneling when you’re kneeling on it), clinging on to the handrail. Is there a handrail? I can’t remember, but it hardly matters. I managed to execute a nice crawl/shuffle combination down the stairs on my bum, like a socialite spilling out of a nightclub at 3am, knees and elbows first. I spent the descent of Balsam Lake Mountain trying not to collapse in a heap, deeply in thought, musing on vertigo. Modern fire towers are steel structures bolted into solid rock, but older versions were made of wood. The earlier wooden structure on Balsam Lake Mountain was built in 1887, but was struck by lightning and burnt to the ground in 1901.
Peekamoose is a Catskill 35 that can be combined with Table Mountain, also a Catskill 35, if you arrive at the parking area early enough in the day. Alas, I can never manage to muster myself in time. Work usually gets in the way. Moreover, on the day that I hiked it, the weather was inclement: foggy and raining, which made for a very enigmatic lunch at the summit. On top of a mountain peak, with your soggy sandwich, you are in the weather and this peak has two superb views made more astonishing by layers of fog and rain. Peekamoose is already an unusually lonely and desolate place on a summer weekday because the parking area looks like a spent weekend. Visitors, who bring their barbeque sets, chairs, tables and literally set up camp by streams and swimming holes in the area like the Blue Hole, leave all of their garbage: all of it.
The start of the hike to the summit of Balsam Mountain from Rider Hollow Road is a soft, mossy incline in a slender canyon between two mountains, crossing back and forth five times over (two) bridges and gushing streams, enveloped by the heady, familiar aroma of evergreen trees.
It’s an exquisitely picturesque hike with a narrow trail off which the dog strays, excitedly sprinting down to the gushing stream for a splash around and then back up the mountain to chase chipmunks. After the last bridge, the going begins to get rocky and steep, requiring hands and feet both in places, giving little respite until the next mile marker. Even after the mile marker, it’s a first-rate clamber in parts, second in line to the great rocky Giant Ledge/Panther Mountain hike. However, I’ve only done five of the Catskill 35, so I’ve little to compare it to, but it’s a thigh-busting challenge.
However, as the great lady said, by heck, it’s gorgeous. Not only gorgeous, it’s magical, evoking memories of childhood books in which squirrels and other spritely mammals live in enormous trees, like they’re Brooklyn brownstones, and go to forest school in uniforms. The magic was compounded by the fact that the base of the mountain was shrouded in fog when I hiked, so my ascent was a misty rise into a lushly ethereal world. You are never really alone until you’ve done a steep, perilous mid-week hike into the mountains after the summer season has finished and revelers have retreated to their city habitats. Always sign in for hikes. It could save your life. There is nothing like the doom of having unwittingly wandered off-trail and being lost in the wilderness with darkness looming. I recommend it at least once, because if you have stressful concerns about business, trivial family wrangles or superficial worries, they will dissolve like a desert mirage once you get lost on a hike with no cellphone service.
Hiking the Catskills 35 has taught me that I can start a hike fretting about a demanding client and by the time I’ve gone off-trail, become lost and suddenly relying on the dog to get me back to civilization, that formerly important client is miraculously dead to me.
If the Spruceton Trail to the summit of Hunter Mountain were a movie it would be a Kate Winslett vehicle: remarkably efficient, obvious, solidly reliable with a spectacular finish. An old logging trail, it has a very wide berth, leading the way like any seasonal road flattened with pebbles and flinty rubble. There’s really no chance for an idiot writer to get lost on this trail; even the Black Lab fell in line quickly and took a steady, dependable pace all the way to the top where there is a large fire tower, upon which should read the words: don’t look down. Looking down from the midway of the fire tower invites a severe case of the wobblies.
It’s easy to miss the 3500ft elevation notice on Panther Mountain for two reasons. One reason is that it seems to be split down the middle and folded together slightly so that, on the ascent to the summit at 3720ft from Giant Ledge, it’s facing away from you. Second, it’s at the top of a particularly steep and (more) rocky part of the trail, so if you’re focusing on your footing and not looking up, you will miss it. Also easy to miss is the summit sign at 3720ft. On and on I hiked, until I was about three hours in from the Giant Ledge parking area, so I decided to turn back. I’m no slow coach, so I knew something was wrong. It had started to rain and, not only was I slipping alot, a large tree lay across the trail. I took this all as a sign and walked back to the second Panther Mountain view, in about half an hour, where I found the trio of hikers from the Adirondacks that I had passed at Giant Ledge. They were having their lunch. “I didn’t reach the summit,” I told the lead hiker “This is the summit,” he said. “Where’s the sign?” I asked. “People steal signs,” he said with a shrug.
A second source just confirmed the rumour. Someone stole the Panther Mountain summit sign. Maybe I just confirmed the rumour, but I’m too exhausted to think about it much. My round trip took me almost six hours, but on the plus side, the rain had stopped by the time I had returned to the summit from the other side and the mountains were steaming. I sighed and gasped at the views, took pictures and ate my lunch. I didn’t stop for long though, because I realized I had over two more hours of hiking ahead of me. They call it a hike, but there’s a considerable amount of climbing involved on this trail. During brief pauses in my hike, I would take pictures of my dog disappearing at the top of what looks like a very large pile of rubble.
On the thigh-busting descent to the Giant Ledge parking area, I was certain Giant Ledge was so-named because a giant went up to the summit, broke off the top of the mountain and threw it to the base. It crumbled as it tumbled and rocks are strewn all the way down. Unless you’re as nimble as a sprite, hopping from one half-buried rock to the next, the descent is a tedious search for sure footing.
According to Catskill Mountaineer, Panther Mountain “sits on top of a 375 million year old meteorite hit. The meteorite was approximately a half-mile wide. It sits 3300ft below Panther Mountain. Most of the rock on Panther Mountain is sand stone, which is just deposited sediments. If you go down near the Esopus Creek you will see significant fractured rock, which is evidence of the meteor. You will not find this fractured rock on top of Panther Mountain. The mountain is earth that has risen over time”.
Look for large pebbles embedded in the rock.
At least I managed to have tea and a biscuit at Giant Ledge. Time for some yoga.
Last night’s gorgeous sunset hike with Jeff Vincent of Catskill Mountain Wild occurred under a full, blue moon with clear skies and hazy sunset viewed from the fire tower atop Overlook Mountain in Woodstock. Go to the NYNJ Trail Conference website or the DEC to get the details of the hike. There’s nothing as quietening on the nerves as a strenuous hike that culminates in a few beers around the fire pit at one of the Catskills best bars, Commune Saloon on nearby Tinker Street. An uphill 2.5-mile battle at a thigh-burning gradient, the hike is worthwhile for the magnificent ruins of the Overlook Mountain House about half a mile from the summit. The hotel was built almost 100 years ago but swiftly abandoned by the developer mid-project. The trail is lined with burdock and mullein, but beware of the rattlesnakes. Once you ascend the fire tower you have almost 360-degree views of the Ashokan Reservoir, the Hudson River and the easternmost Catskill Mountains, once called the Blue Mountains for their blue hue. The 2.5-mile descent was under the gaze of the full, blue moon. A great hike to take visitors; the summit also includes a historical kiosk manned day and night by volunteer watchmen.
As Jeff Vincent explained a couple of months ago in our conversation, “one day of hiking with somebody, you feel like you’ve known them for months and months” and it’s true. Jeff runs Catskill Mountain Wild, an outdoor guide business and he is also authorized to conduct marriages on top of mountains in what he calls “wild weddings”.
I went hiking and found myself. So every chance I get I like to climb a mountain with my laptop and do some work. I’m also a painter, photographer, writer, editor and often hike with a ridiculous amount of gear: easels, cameras, sketch pads, laptops, iPads, etc. I’m always stupidly overburdened. In fact, I go almost everywhere with my laptop. I’ve also mentioned that I’m aiming to complete the Catskills 35 in the next year and I’m totally unprepared.
For example, I was previously using this for day hikes:
When he finally dragged me out camping upstate for the first time, my husband tucked his socks into his trousers and his shirt into his Christmas tree pyjamas, because NOBODY wants Lyme disease. Consequently, I had never seen a tick on him before last week. It was a wood tick that I had not expected to be that large because local lore has it that they are everywhere and that the nymphs are about as visible as specks of dust.
I’m a born and bred Londoner, a city girl with city friends who have visited my house and come hiking in ballet flats and a boob tube. In their purse on hikes, you will find cash, lipstick and mini-bottles of vodka because they were only going for a walk, after all. A couple of months ago, after a particularly enormous meal at Arkville Bread Breakfast, home of the Catskills’ best fish and chips, I decided to hike to Giant Ledge with only two hours of daylight left. Wearing snowboarding boots unsuitable for the icy crust all the way up to the Ledge at 1500 feet, I passed embarrassingly efficient hikers on their descent with crampons and sticks. Miraculously, I made it back. I think I get this from my father whom I once took hiking in his wing-tipped, leather shoes. He was fine.
“When are you getting up? Now? Now? You don’t see me slipping over. It’s not cold. It’s fine. Can you throw the ball from there?”
It’s about this time of year that cabin fever firmly seizes us in these mountains and we do impulsive things like go hiking up a mountain when there’s only two hours of daylight left. Spring seems like it’s just around the corner and we’re so used to the bitter cold that 20F seems nice and toasty. It’s not until we’re approaching our icy ascent (in our snowboarding boots, stupidly wearing wool and cotton), passing very sensible hikers on their way down using sticks and cramp-ons that we realise what a risk we’ve taken, but there’s a happy ending to this story, and a sandwich. Charles Dickens walked 20 miles a day in his prime, stalking around town in the afternoon after a sturdy lunch, no doubt conjuring up characters en route from his observations of 19th century Londoners. Writers love a good walk. First, the sandwich: corned beef brisket on toasted rye with a dash of mustard from Arkville Bread and Breakfast with a portion of chips (that were meant to go in the Fish and Chips, but that was yesterday’s lunch). Thinly-sliced brisket, lean, delicate and not too fatty on perfectly-toasted rye. This reasonably-sized portion, plus a cup of Twinings Irish Breakfast, got me to Giant Ledge in most unsuitable shoes and down again, occasionally sliding on my bottom because of the ice.
The ultimate space saver, this towel expands from the size of a tablet (bigger than advil, but much smaller than a champagne cork) to the size of a face cloth. Throw a handful in your backpack and then simply dunk one in water with a drop of soap for a convenient outdoor bath.